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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

August 7, 1998

Air Date: August 7, 1998


Rocky Mountains Change / Steve Curwood

Steve Curwood made a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park outside of Boulder, Colorado to talk with scientists and see first-hand what some researchers say is evidence of global climate change occurring there among the trees and snow fall. (12:05)

Dental Bonding: Dangerous to your Health?

In recent years, the American Dental Association (ADA) has been advocating the use of plastic dental sealants to fill cavities. However, in a study whose findings were published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, some of the plastics used appear to contain some possibly health damaging ingredients. The ADA is modifying it's position to endorse the use of those sealants only which do not contain the potentially harmful synthetic chemicals. (06:57)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about...Purple Loosestrife (01:30)

Life in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge / Peter Thomson

A new estimate of the amount of oil beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has reignited the debate over whether or not to allow oil wells in the remote Alaskan preserve. Much of the land is officially designated as wilderness. But a slice of the refuge’s coastal plain was left without such protection, because of the oil deposits, and that's the spot the oil companies want to open for drilling. Last summer, Living on Earth's senior correspondent Peter Thomson traveled to the arctic refuge for a first-hand look at the place and its people. He brought back this report. (20:15)

Alaska Solstice / Geo Beach

All summer long, visitors from around the world travel to Alaska to find the land of the Midnight Sun. They usually steal south with the eternal sunlight captured in their cameras. But commentator Geo Beach says those summer visitors are missing something special: the land of the Noontime Moon. (02:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Brenda Tremblay, Peter Thomson

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living On Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Rocky Mountain National Park boasts more than a dozen different climate zones. It's a perfect place for climate research. And a team of scientists says that global climate change is already having an effect on life.

STOHLGREN: What we're learning now about global climate change, it's not simply global warming, it's global change. And we're seeing changes in the variation. And that concerns us most, is that things are bouncing around from the average more. And that gives us a higher level of uncertainty and uneasiness about predicting what the future impacts will be for specific species, or specific landscapes.

CURWOOD: Also, an assessment of the health effects of dental sealants. Those stories and more coming up this week on Living on Earth. First, news.

Back to top

(NPR News)

(Music up and under)

Rocky Mountains Change

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood, with an encore edition of Living on Earth.

(Traffic sounds)

CURWOOD: Each year more than 3 million people bring themselves, their cars, trucks, and recreational vehicles to the gates of Rocky Mountain National Park.

(A window opens)

MAN: How you doing?

WOMAN: Good. Ten dollars. You get a yellow receipt, it's good for 7 days.

MAN: Great.

WOMAN: Thank you.

MAN: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: This park is 4-wheel friendly. The popular and spectacular Trail Ridge Road is the highest paved 2-way traverse in the nation, and you can get right up to the tundra just by slipping your Winnebago into drive. The scenery is breathtaking and diverse. Going from the park's front gate to its highest peak is like traveling north from Colorado to beyond the Arctic Circle. And with 13 unique vegetation zones, Rocky Mountain National Park also attracts its share of scientists.

STOHLGREN: National parks provide us the greatest set of outdoor laboratories that we have to work with. It's a place where nature is still the predominant factor.

CURWOOD: Thomas Stohlgren leads a team of researchers based at Colorado State University working for the United States Geological Survey. They're here to study climate change.

STOHLGREN: If we learn what's going on in our natural systems, we'll develop a deeper understanding for how humans are tied to ecosystems and how humans can influence them, and perhaps how humans can protect them for future generations.


CURWOOD: So Tom, where are we?

(Music up and under)

STOHLGREN: We're in the Upper Beaver Meadows area of Rocky Mountain National Park.

CURWOOD: Upper Beaver Meadows, huh? What are we stepping on here?

STOHLGREN: We're stepping on actually some remnants. You can see some cactus if you're fairly careful here. Ah! Look at that.

CURWOOD: Cactus in the midst of tall, lush grasses is a reminder that climate is ever-changing. A few thousand years ago, Dr. Stohlgren says, this part of the Rockies was much cooler and drier than it is today.

STOHLGREN: The thing about climate change is, sometimes the vegetation can hang around a lot longer after the climate changes.

CURWOOD: So this tiny little cactus -- it's no bigger, really, than what -- an inch or so across. This dates from 3,000, 5,000 years ago?

STOHLGREN: Right, that vegetation type on this spot. And it just hasn't left.

CURWOOD: The ancient record is fascinating. It shows how climate change can effect an ecosystem over time, usually a long time. But what's driving Dr. Stohlgren's research now is much faster climate change. Today's cars, factories, power plants, and heating systems are releasing so much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that scientists predict the average temperature of the Earth could change as much as 4 or 5 degrees in a matter of decades, instead of millennia. Dr. Stohlgren wants to know how life in the park would respond. To find out, his team has carefully mapped and catalogued 18 plots around the park.

STOHLGREN: We go out with our global positioning devices, you know, now that are hand-held units. You can tell exactly where you are, and we have trees measured and mapped to the nearest 10 centimeters.

CURWOOD: Ho! Ten centimeters.

STOHLGREN: Ten centimeters, 5 inches. They're a legacy for future ecologists, really. They can come back, measure the exact same trees we measured, and assess the growth rates of the different species and see who's gaining the competitive advantage. Who are going to be the winners in the next climate scenario.

CURWOOD: Dr. Stohlgren says they've already noticed changes that may be due to recent accelerated global climate change.

(A door shuts; a car engine starts up)

CURWOOD: He points up to a spot along Trail Ridge Road, 9,000 feet above sea level.

STOHLGREN: That's where we're going, that curve right up there.

CURWOOD: The drive only takes a few minutes, but the change in vegetation is dramatic. We leave the pine forest and grassy meadows below, and enter a sub-Alpine tundra. This climate zone covers a third of the park. It boasts winds of more than 170 miles an hour at times, and a very short growing season, about 40 frost-free days a year. Anything that survives in the stony pockets of soil has to hug the earth.


CURWOOD: Dr. Stohlgren hops down through a steep boulder field and stops in front of a bush.

STOHLGREN: Yeah, this is a Krumholtz-Ingleman spruce.

CURWOOD: It's about the shortest and fattest Christmas tree I've ever seen. It's as wide as -- it's like 8 feet wide and maybe 3 feet tall.

STOHLGREN: At these elevations, with really cold climates, the trees really take on more of a shrub-like form. But look at this leader right here; it shows that in fairly recent times, times have been very good for this tree. And it will take over more tree-like form from a shrub-like form, given some warming in the climate and then some additions of nitrogen.

CURWOOD: So this is evidence of climate change here?

STOHLGREN: It's evidence of a combination of probably increased CO2, which has a fertilizing effect; slightly warmer temperatures, which are great for tree growth; and then increased nitrogen from air pollution.

CURWOOD: So, how old is this tree? A hundred years?

STOHLGREN: Oh, this could be many more than 100 years old. This could be 200 or 300 years old. But this tree line that we see here was 100 meters, you know, the length of a football field, downslope in the Little Ice Age around 1500. So the trees have moved upslope, and then this is an indication that they're not only moving upslope but they're growing really well very recently. These are the rapid changes that we see throughout the treeline here, that you see here.

CURWOOD: A number of changes in the plant life of the park, Dr. Stohlgren says, are due to warmer winters, most likely linked to global warming, and to cooler summers linked to regional effects. Land use has shifted along the plains of the Rocky Mountain front, with farms and subdivisions that use a lot of water during the growing season. This serves to cool the park in the summer. But this localized cooling will not offset the effects of global warming in Rocky Mountain National Park, says Dr. Stohlgren. Indeed, it may make things worse.

STOHLGREN: What we're learning now about global climate change, it's not simply global warming; it's global change. And we're seeing changes in the variation, and that concerns us most, is that things are bouncing around from the average more. And that gives us a higher level of uncertainty and uneasiness about predicting what the future impacts will be for specific species or specific landscapes.

(A bell tower rings)

CURWOOD: Down the mountain to the east, in the laboratory of the University of Colorado in Boulder, another member of the team, Professor Thomas Veblen, is studying one of the most potent impacts of the climate bouncing around.

VEBLEN: One of the most important findings of our study is that increased climate variability is highly conducive to increased fire occurrence.

(Sanding sounds)

CURWOOD: By carefully sanding down tree samples and then studying the rings that date back more than 500 years, Professor Veblen can divine the history of the climate and its relationship to forest fires in and around Rocky Mountain National Park. One of his findings links the incidence of El Nino weather systems to forest fires.

VEBLEN: We expect that there's going to be increased variability in El Nino's southern oscillation events to the extent that we have global climate change. And when we look at the record of El Ninos that dates back to the 1520s, there is a strong statistical relationship of fire occurrence in Colorado with that El Nino record. We find that about 3 years following El Nino events, we get an increase in fire in Colorado.

CURWOOD: Dr. Veblen says El Nino typically brings greater precipitation to the region. The rain allows grasses and shrubs to flourish. When the dry weather returns, usually 2 or 3 years later, that new growth turns to tinder that fuels forest fires.

El Nino is a big deal this year.

VEBLEN: That's right....So if we trust the long-term record, you could make a prediction, then, that 3 years in the future we would expect to have a higher fire hazard as a result of the increased precipitation that should follow this El Nino event.

CURWOOD: And today the danger is multiplied, because over the past 100 years natural forest fires have been suppressed by people. As a result, a huge store of fuel has built up. Should a fire get out of control, the park could be devastated. Climate also affects another natural resource found at Rocky Mountain National Park.

(Trickling water)

CURWOOD: Water. Much of the water for the western and southwestern United States comes from the Rockies. Four major rivers start in Colorado. The research team's hydrologist, Jill Baron, says huge effects could be felt if the climate warms just a bit.

BARON: If you warm it up 4 degrees, you start the snow melt as much as a month earlier. So instead of it beginning in mid-April to mid-May, it'll begin some time early, late March.

CURWOOD: Dr. Baron says that change in timing may mean a drenching for the ecosystem in the spring, followed by a drought later in the summer.

BARON: The water supply community can probably adjust to that. These are the people that collect the water and then redistribute it for urban and agricultural needs. But to these uphill mountain ecosystems, they won't have any kind of storage like that to be able to compensate for changes in temperature.

CURWOOD: Moving tree lines, fires, floods, drought. If they all come to pass, it could be a scenario out of the Apocalypse. But on this day, as sunset approaches, Rocky Mountain National Park seems indestructible. We turn our greenhouse gas-emitting car around and head down Trail Ridge Road.

(Traffic sounds)

CURWOOD: Back near the entrance gate, we join tourists and rangers gathered to hear a sound that's been echoing in these mountains for perhaps thousands of years: the mating cry of elk.

(Elks call)

CHILDERS: The deeper the bugle, the bigger the bull.

CURWOOD: Park ranger and naturalist Joan Childers.

CHILDERS: So he's out there trying to look as big as he can, have a very, very deep bugle, very rich bugle. And send out this message that I'm the biggest, I'm the best, come on, join me.

CURWOOD: So you mean this is like the guys on the beach and their cars rumbling up and down and the girls looking and saying Well, I like the one in the red convertible?

CHILDERS: That's a good analogy, I like that. Exactly, yeah. Yeah.

CURWOOD: Now, you've been doing this 6 years or so. Have you noticed any changes in the pattern of when this bugling, when the rutting season begins at all?

CHILDERS: This year it seems to be a little bit later than usual, and we're not seeing quite as much activity as I've seen in years past this early. But why, I don't know.

CURWOOD: We asked one of the team's elk experts what he makes of the bulls' late arrival. He says it could be because the snows that drive the animals down the mountains are behind schedule. But right now there's no research underway to see if this, too, is related to climate change. That's another study for another day.

(Elk bugling)

CURWOOD: Our report on Rocky Mountain National Park was produced by Living on Earth's George Homsy, with assistance from Emma Hayes.

Back to top

(Bugling continues)

CURWOOD: You can tell us what you think of our program by joining the Living on Earth survey. The number to call, anytime, is 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-99-88. Or just dail up our web page at www dot livingonearth dot org, and cick on the survey form. Coming up: The hazards of using certain kinds of plastic to protect the teeth of children. The dental sealant controversy is next. Stay tuned to Living On Earth.

(Music up and under)

Dental Bonding: Dangerous to your Health?

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Researchers continue to find more and more synthetic chemicals that appear to mimic or inhibit hormones and other chemical messengers in our bodies. The results can range from reproductive and neurological disorders to certain kinds of cancers. And these chemicals are everywhere, it seems in the environment. They are found in our lakes, at the grocery store, and as Brenda Tremblay reports even at the dentist's office.

(Water suction)

TREMBLAY: Thirteen-year-old Alex Tilton got out of school early today to come to the dentist. Alex leans his lanky body into a padded chair and opens his mouth. Dental hygienist Debbie Vitalone polishes Alex's teeth with pumice. Then she applies and rinses what looks like blue toothpaste on his molars in order to prepare them for an application of dental sealant, a permanent plastic coating that will prevent him from getting cavities.

VITALONE: And then we just paint it. This right on the top of the tooth. And what it does, it gets in all those little grooves, covers the top of the tooth.

TREMBLAY: It's clear.

VITALONE: Yeah, clear, tooth color. Okay? And then we just use our light, some ultraviolet light we just put on there.

(Metal clanks. A fan whirrs)

VITALONE: And that hardens them.

TREMBLAY: During the past several years the American Dental Association has been campaigning hard to promote the use of dental sealant. By the year 2000, ADA officials hope that half of all children in the United States will have sealant applied to their teeth. But a team of researchers at the University of Grenada in Spain and at Tufts University in Boston began to wonder what was happening to the plastic going into people's mouths. They asked 18 people who were treated with dental sealant to spit into cups an hour after the sealant was applied. Then the researchers analyzed the saliva and reported significant amounts of an estrogen mimic called bis-phenyl A had leached into the patients'

SONNENSHEIN: Nothing will happen specifically after they are treated. The issue is whether it is desirable that we are exposed to estrogen mimics that stay with us.

TREMBLAY: Carlos Sonnenshein of Tufts University in Boston co-authored the study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. He says that in laboratories, human breast cancer cells treated with bis-phenyl A have proliferated 6 times faster than control cells. Bis-phenyl A has also been shown to be toxic to fish, and experiments show it hinders the reproductive abilities of mice, resulting in smaller litters and slower sperm in male mice. Dr. Sonnenshein says there's a human connection, too.

SONNENSHEIN: There are arguments and statistics that indicate that there is an increased incidence of testicular cancer, due probably to the presence of these xeno-estrogens. And the other, still as important, issue is the problem of lower sperm counts. These are studies that require not only confirmation, but amplification, and good controls.

TREMBLAY: At first, the Grenada/Tufts University study on dental sealants merely raised a few eyebrows at the American Dental Association. ADA officials responded with a statement saying the organization did not believe it was necessary to change its recommendation concerning the use of dental sealants. At the same time, they asked their researchers to conduct their own experiments in an attempt to confirm the results from Europe.

MYER: We have not been able to replicate the study or get the same results that that study got.

TREMBLAY: Dan Myer is associated executive director of the Division of Science at the American Dental Association. He says that the researchers in Spain did not study brands of sealant commonly used by American dentists. Dan Myer says researchers at UCLA examined 7 dental sealants that are commercially available in the United States and they could not detect any bis- phenyl A in any of them. While Mr. Myer and his colleagues at the ADA trumpeted the safety of American-made sealants, they also began limiting their approval of dental sealants to those without bis-phenyl A. In other words, the American Dental Association found the European study important enough to act on, even without confirmation of the results.

MYER: As long as this has been raised as a national issue, a national concern, a public health issue, we will continue to look at it until we have exhausted every avenue. And again, we're very concerned about the safety of the public, the safety of our providers. And we will continue to look at that.

TREMBLAY: Out of the 30 brands of sealant currently available to US dentists, only 13 have been tested for bis-phenyl A and approved by the ADA.

VITALONE: Just rinse it out and then I can give you a glass to rinse it out real good, OK? [More suction]

TREMBLAY: Debbie Vitalone is just about finished applying dental sealant to her young patient's teeth.

VITALONE: Okay, let's see, we'll show dad over here. Okay, we did these 2 teeth on this side, and normally the tooth would have grooves in it.

SAM: Mm hm.

VITALONE: Okay. Can you see? It's all smoothed off.

SAM: It's all filled up with plastic.


TREMBLAY: While his father Sam watches, Alex sits up in his chair and clicks his teeth together. Then he makes a face.

ALEX: It feels like where the plastic is, it's sticking up. And it hits my top teeth. And it just feels sort of like there's a stone in there, or crunchy. And but she said that's going to wear down.

TREMBLAY: Alex will come back about every 3 years to have the sealant reapplied to his teeth. And if he brushes and flosses regularly, his dentist, Dr. Robert Dolan, says he may never need a filling. Dr. Dolan is totally confident that sealants are safe.

DOLAN: There's been so much research in the United States, when they've had dozens and dozens and dozens and they followed it for 10 and 15 and 20 and 25 years, that I think that it wouldn't bother me if one researcher in Spain, unless I saw many, many reports that it was not safe for any reason.

TREMBLAY: Robert Dolan's enthusiasm for dental sealants is shared by a growing number of dentists in the United States. But Dr. Dolan only uses sealant that has been tested for the presence of the estrogen mimic. Not all dentists do. Dan Meyer of the American Dental Association recommends parents talk to their children's dentist and find out if the sealant he or she is using is approved by the ADA. For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Tremblay in Rochester, New York.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's NPR's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: In search of caribou and their place in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A reporter's notebook is just ahead right here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, if the planet’s health isn’t our business, whose is it?

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Summer temperatures are rising and you want to know exactly how much but don't have a thermometer handy. Don't worry. You can get a lot of information from some very little creatures. For instance, if you're seeing ants, it's at least 55 degrees Fahrenheit. And if a honeybee stings you without provocation, chances are it's below 70. If that's not accurate enough, look for grasshoppers. If they're hopping it's at least 37 degrees, and if they're chirping it's above 62. Then there's the katydid, which gets the award for most indecisive insect when it comes to temperature reporting. When the mercury tops 80 degrees it's call sounds like "katy did it." But as the temperature drops, so apparently does the katydid's certainty. At 4 degree intervals, the call changes first to "katy didn't," then to "katy did," and from there to "she didn't," and "she did." Below 60 degrees the call is just, "Kate." The most accurate forecaster of all is the white tree cricket. It chirps exactly 4 times a minute for every degree the thermometer reads above 40 degrees.
And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Life in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge

CURWOOD: A new estimate of the amount of oil beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has reignited the debate over whether or not to allow oil wells in the remote Alaskan preserve. The report by the U-S Geological Survey estimates there’s at least eleven-and-a-half billion barrels of oil under the refuge, more than ten times the previous estimate. Alaska Senator and energy committe chairman Frank Murkowski and others are pushing for oil exploration in the reserve. But the Clinton administration remains opposed. The battle over the arctic refuge goes back more than 40 years, and shows no signs of abating. Much of the land is officially designated as wilderness. But a slice of the refuge’s coastal plain was left without such protection, because of the oil deposits, and that's the spot the oil companies want to open for drilling. Last summer, Living on Earth's senior correspondent Peter Thomson travelled to the arctic refuge for a first-hand look at the place and its people. He brought back this report.

(Running water)

THOMSON: We call it the frozen North, but summer does come to the Arctic.

(Running water continues)

THOMSON: A stream of water is pouring off a thick ice slab into a shallow pool on a gravel bar in the middle of a broad riverbed. The ice slab is maybe a quarter of a mile square. Its layers of turquoise and white suggest it's been here for years. But with the temperature near 70 and a warm rain brewing, it's hard to imagine it holding out much longer.

(Footfalls, cracking ice)

THOMSON: I'm standing on the gravel at the edge of the ice, lurking to the south of the Gray Mountains, where the river begins as glacial runoff, and the gap where it slips out of its valley onto the vast coastal plain. I follow the stream as it sidles past the ice field, cuts through the barren green tundra, and heads for the ocean 30 miles away. Alone on the Arctic Plain, I feel like I've traveled not just thousands of miles from home, but also eons back in time. The familiar elements are all here: earth, air, water, and sun. But they haven't yet been forged into the world I've known.

(Torrential rains and thunder; fade to plane engine)

THOMSON: To get to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, you have to fly on a series of ever-smaller planes.

(Plane engine continues)

THOMSON: In a jet from the Lower 48 to Fairbanks, over the convoluted coastline of southeast Alaska. Then a small cargo hauler that grinds over an untouched landscape of scrub forests, lakes, and rivers, to a gravel runway in an isolated village. Finally, a tiny bush plane that floats over the ghostly peaks of the Brooks Range, down the valley of a meandering river, and more like a dragonfly than a machine, onto the river's grassy floodplain.

(Propellers coming to a halt. A door opens.)

THOMSON: I step from the plane onto a landscape of muted colors and contours. The sides of the valley slope gently up toward rounded ridges, yellow-green giving way to gray-brown.

(Bird calls, some voices)

THOMSON: The sky is pale blue, and soft rays from the low sun play tricks with distance and scale. The only sounds are the hushed flow of the shallow Aichilk river and a few summering birds. I've come to the Arctic refuge with members of a Congressional delegation. They want to see the place that's become a perennial issue in Washington. There's oil here. The oil companies want in. Environmentalists want to keep them out. And the argument just won't die.

(Footfalls and rushing water)

THOMSON: But it's hard to think about politics here.

(Footfalls and rushing water, bird calls continue)

MILLER: What makes me want to come back again and again is the feeling that one gets from the sheer vastness of the landscape and a feeling of timelessness in the summer. Where you have the constant daylight.

THOMSON: Debbie Miller is a teacher and a writer from Fairbanks. She's been coming here every summer for almost 15 years. Her camp is 30 miles off to the east, and she's flown over to greet us. Sort of the welcome wagon lady of the Arctic Refuge.

MILLER: This is one of the few places we have in America where we don't have the manmade features. We don't have manmade trails. You know, you walk along caribou trails that have been etched in the tundra for thousands of years. You have a sense when you're climbing these mountains that gee, maybe I'm the first person that walked up this slope. And the silence. The silence is so great. You're able to just feel the pulse of the land.

THOMSON: What was the most perhaps amazing thing you first saw here when you first started coming here?

MILLER: The most dramatic spectacle we've ever witnessed was the porcupine caribou herd. About 30,000 of them walked by us one day. My husband and I were out alone on the coastal plain, and we looked over our shoulder and the whole horizon was filled with these silhouetted caribou. Before we knew it we were just surrounded by just thousands of animals swarming around us. And the sounds, I think, were the most overwhelming. Their hooves were clicking and they grunt and they snort, they bellow. The calves were bleating. Some people think of it as a river of life moving across the tundra, because you can't see a blade of grass. The land just becomes full of life. Animals, sound.

(Footfalls and rushing water continue)

THOMSON: Debbie Miller tells me there's a chapter on the caribou of the Arctic Refuge in her book Midnight Wilderness. I'll read it some day but right now, I want to see the animals.

(Footfalls over bones)

THOMSON: A little ways down the riverbed there is a small bone field, a partial spine, a femur, a shoulderblade. It's the remains of what looks like a young caribou stripped clean by a succession of animals and insects. The bones are starkly white against the dark soil. There are signs of caribou everywhere here: discard of antlers, well-worn paths, even fresh hoof prints. But without the eyes of an eagle, or the nose and ears of a wolf or a grizzly, I can't find them.

(Footfalls and bird calls)

THOMSON: There are lots of rare and wonderful animals in the Arctic Refuge. What conservationists jokingly call charismatic mega-fauna. There are polar bears and musk oxen, wolves, and birds that migrate from as far as Argentina. But it's the caribou to which defenders turn first, whenever there's talk of going after the oil here. Caribou are among the last great migratory herds in North America, and the porcupine caribou herd, which migrates between the Porcupine River in Canada's Yukon Territory and the coastal plane of the Arctic Refuge, is one of the largest in the world. It's also a main source of food for the Gwich'in Indians, who live in a handful of communities to the south and east of the Refuge.

(Rattling sounds)

FRANK: This traditional hunting tools, this one here. You rattle this and follow the caribou, and the caribou will think you're a caribou, so you can just walk up to them.

THOMSON: A set of caribou hooves laced together with caribou hide. It's a simple but effective hunting tool that Kenneth Frank shows me in his small wooden house in the tiny Gwich'in community of Arctic Village.

FRANK: For a thousand years the porcupine caribou herd feed the people. They just keep going back and forth, so that's how we survive here for 10,000 years.

THOMSON: Back and forth the caribou move, between their winter range to the south and their summer calving grounds in the Refuge to the north. Passing Gwich'in hunters along the way.

(Various sounds. Frank: "Watch your head.")

THOMSON: The air in Kenneth's house is thick with the smell of cooking meat. Across the room his wife Caroline tends the stove.

C. FRANK: I'm cooking the caribou heart. (Laughs)

THOMSON: Oh. How are you preparing it?

C. FRANK: I'm just cooking it. Has vitamin A, B, and C.

THOMSON: It smells delicious.

C. FRANK: Yeah. (Laughs)

THOMSON: Little goes to waste when the Gwich'in bring down a caribou. It's woven into virtually every part of their lives.

(Objects falling)

THOMSON: Kenneth rummages through a large box next to a rack of videotapes and CDS. He shows me a drum, a fur parka, a pair of snowshoes. Everything's made with caribou parts.

K. FRANK: You know, all the stuff that we have like the cloth, string, the bone we use for tools, and even tendons we use to make snares for small game. And how we sew our boots together, we use stuff from the caribou.

C. FRANK: The wisdom in the culture, the knowledge comes from the caribou.

THOMSON: Caroline Frank is a preschool teacher. Kenneth works at the village's center for substance abuse prevention. They've watched their community pass through difficult times recently. There are few jobs, little money for schools or health care, and all but 2 of their elders have died. And Gwich'in youth are increasingly drawn by the seductive lure of mainstream culture and city life to the south. But the Gwich'in still have the caribou and the stories and traditions that the hunt keeps alive. Gwich'in leaders believe the caribou is the social glue that holds their community together.

C. FRANK: Everything that we believe in comes from the caribou, and that's the only thing that the kids are hanging onto right now.

THOMSON: The Gwich'in strongly oppose oil drilling in the refuge. They fear it will harm the caribou and ultimately the future of their children.

K. FRANK: Their freedom will be taken away from them. Their freedom to live, you know, how they want to live. And then they will have nothing left, and that is really a scary thing for our generation.

(Treks through grass. Wind.)

THOMSON: You came up in May of 71?

MAUER: Twenty-six years, I guess. Since 81 I've been working in the Refuge.

THOMSON: Outside the Gwich'in community, if you want to learn about the porcupine caribou herd, people say Fran Mauer is your guy. He's a biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and he's joined our group for a hike along the Aichilik River form our camp site. I want to know why the Gwich'in and others are so concerned about oil drilling. After all, the coastal plain, where the oil is, is just one small part of the caribou's range.

MAUER: Well, we know from the experience in the Prudhoe Bay area to the west of the Arctic Refuge that females with young calves are displaced by human activity. As a result of that displacement, we are now seeing reduced productivity in that herd. In the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, we have 10 times as many caribou using this landscape for habitat. And the area available to them is only one fifth as big.

THOMSON: Fran Mauer says the problem isn't pollution or any other direct threat to the caribou. The problem is mosquitos. The coastal plain is where the caribou go to escape the huge swarms of bugs. The cool sea breeze can keep the mosquitos away, Fran says, and if the air is still the caribou can run across the flat open tundra to make their own wind. But oil fields can make the caribou more vulnerable to the bugs.

MAUER: They're unable to obtain insect relief because they're blocked by roads and pipes and works of man, it may interfere with their ability to get fat for the winter. And if they're not fat enough for the winter, the cows either will not get pregnant at all, or they give birth to lightweight, weak calves that don't survive.

THOMSON: Are there other animals that would be affected by development in that small part of the Refuge?

MAUER: Well, there are. While it's appropriate to focus on the potential impacts of the porcupine caribou herd, I think an even greater impact is the effect that industrialization would have on the entire system. The entire predator-prey complex would stand to be affected here. So there's a lot at stake, more than just the caribou.

THOMSON: Fran Mauer has spent years alone with the animals of the Arctic Refuge. But it seems that he never gets tired of watching them.

MAUER: (Panting while hiking) We once saw a wolf hunting in the willows, and eventually it flushed a ptarmigan out of the willows. And as the ptarmigan flew up through the willows and it got into clear going, an eagle appeared out of nowhere like a streak of lightning and caught the ptarmigan, knocking feathers out as it carried it away. And the wolf sat and watched it go. Probably thought, there goes my meal. Obviously, the eagle was watching the situation and timed its dive perfectly. The ptarmigan was distracted by the ground predator, not watching for an aerial threat. And got caught.

THOMSON: Down by the river we'd spotted wolf tracks in the mud, as sharp and clear as if they'd been made within the hour. And grizzly bear prints, older but startlingly large, maybe 9 inches across. Still, no sign of caribou. Now we're heading up a hillside. It's a relief to move from the lumpy wet tundra to the dry loose rock. Just over the top, our group suddenly stops.

(Buzzing sounds)

THOMSON: There's a band of lean gray creatures moving toward us. We squat down amid the mosquitos to make ourselves as invisible as possible.

(Buzzing continues)

THOMSON: We watch silently as they approach: 7 caribou, a big dark male with a full rack of antlers leads the way. Smaller, lighter ones pull up the rear.

(Buzzing continues)

THOMSON: The animals take little notice of us. They pass 50 yards or so away, up over the hill and out of sight. It's hardly the huge mass of caribou we've heard about, but even this small band has sent a charge through the group.

(Buzzing continues. People laugh)

WOMAN: That was something. Wow. That was great.

MAN: That was scheduled.

MAN 2: Yeah, damn it Fran, next time I want em here on time.

(The group laughs)

THOMSON: We pick up our gear and head off down the hill.

(Clanking sounds and conversation)

MATUMIAK: I was very skeptical at first when oil was first discovered. As time goes by, myself I saw that oil industry and the wildlife can coexist.

THOMSON: Four hundred miles away, to the west of the Arctic Refuge, Warren Matumiak sees the prospect of oil drilling very differently than Fran Mauer or the Gwich'in Indians. He's an Inupiat Eskimo, a native of the Arctic slope and a resident of the city of Barrow. Warren is almost 70 years old, a former planning and wildlife director for the Inupiat regional government. He's watched the oil industry at work in Inupiat territory in the Arctic Plain for 25 years. Like the Gwich'in, the Inupiat also hunt caribou, and Warren says the Gwich'in have nothing to worry about.

MATUMIAK: We have invited Gwich'in people to come up here and visit our town, because we knew that they still think that industry will destroy anything, and we wanted them to see what we went through, how things have changed developing oil.

THOMSON: Warren agrees with the oil industry that carefully built and well- managed oil fields have little impact on Caribou or other wildlife. And the Inupiat government is eager to see the Arctic refuge opened up to drilling. They stand to reap millions of dollars in income and taxes from oil development there, as they have from the fields at Prudhoe Bay. Warren Matumiak grew up in the days before oil, and he has no doubt about the importance of that money.

MATUMIAK: I know what poverty is like. We're enjoying the benefits, now. A lot of things that we never have, especially clean water. You know, we've got roads. We've got health clinics in all the villages. Everything has been changed for the better. You can't, it's not like heaven, you know, but the living has been good.

THOMSON: Oil money has transformed the lives of the Inupiat, and their leaders want to keep as much of it flowing as possible. But their neighbors, the Gwich'in, who live across the mountains from the oil deposits, wouldn't share in the bounty. They stand to gain nothing and fear losing everything. For now, the issue has reached a stalemate. The Refuge will likely stay closed to drilling as long as Bill Clinton remains President. He's consistently threatened to veto any attempt to open it up. But efforts to put the entire Refuge permanently off-limits to oil have also gone nowhere.

(A motor gurgles)

THOMSON: Back at the air strip by our campsite, one of the rickety little planes which brought us here touches down.

(Motor comes to a halt)

THOMSON: It's returning from a flyover of the eastern-most reaches of the Refuge, looking for the main part of the caribou herd.

WOMAN: So how many caribou do you think we saw?

MAN: It was in the thousands.

WOMAN: Yes. (Laughs)

MAN: Tens of thousands, I'd say.

WOMAN 2: So, it was fabulous, eh?

MAN: Yes it was.

WOMAN 1: Yes.

WOMAN 2: Oh, that's so good.

WOMAN 1: It's amazing.

WOMAN 2: That's great.

THOMSON: There was only enough room in the plane for some of the Congressional people from Washington, and this was the only trip. We're heading home tomorrow. I'm disappointed, to say the least. The massive caribou herd is so close, but I won't get to see it.

(Bird calls)

THOMSON: But that wasn't the point of my trip here. And more importantly, anyone getting to see the caribou herd isn't the point of the Arctic Refuge. I remember something Debbie Miller told me the day before, out on the river.

MILLER: I feel incredibly fortunate that our family has had the opportunities we've had up here. We've learned a tremendous amount from the land. It's given us a lot. But the true reason why this place is here is really to protect the wildlife and the habitats that these creatures need to survive. I have received letters from people that live in the Midwest, or in Florida. They write to me that they're so happy that there is a place like this in America, even though they'll never visit it. They may never get here, but they're glad that there are places like this left on Earth. We've lost so many.

(Wind and flowing water, bird calls. Fade to rain)

THOMSON: Two AM. A steady rain beats down on my tent. It's still daylight, even under the heavy gray sky. We'll fly out in the morning, through the clouds and over the mountains to the south. Tonight, I drift back asleep as the hypnotic rhythm of the rain becomes the clicking of 100,000 hooves.

(Rain continues)

THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.

Back to top

(Rain and bird calls, fading to music up and under)

Alaska Solstice

CURWOOD: All summer long, visitors from around the world travel to Alaska to find the land of the Midnight Sun. They usually steal south with the eternal sunlight captured in their cameras. But commentator Geo Beach says those summer visitors are missing something special: the land of the Noontime Moon.

BEACH: Our heavens have turned cobalt, and it's no use railing against the dying of the light. Not even the biggest dipper can bail out night this deep. Blue bruises to black, and a dark veil conceals all but a winking sliver of the Great White Alaska. This December packs a triple-play line-up of Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. But Alaskans start their holiday games a little earlier, on the 21st, the Winter Solstice.

Northern peoples have tracked the winter sun for millennia, stolidly surveying the skies from Stonehenge, boisterously burning the midnight oil in Roman saturnalias, and mischievously mumming across Manchuria. And succeeding religions borrowed and adapted these ceremonies that reflect life's intrinsic orientation to light.

But blinded by the blaze of commercialism, America has forgotten the reasons for these festivals of lights. Up in Alaska, we haven't forgotten. If light is life, it's only natural to be a little afraid of the dark. We live beyond the end of the road, past the last power lines. Like the sky overhead, there's a lot of black between a few minute points of light in Alaska. Winter Solstice is the beginning of the end of that night, the road back to the Midnight Sun. That's great reason to cheer.

This Solstice, we'll be standing outside around a bonfire, watching our world go round. It's traditional. The Anglo-Saxon's Solstice celebration was called heowl for Wheel, which became Yule in our vocabulary. Those guys had figured out the great circular course of the sun wheeling through the skies, and celebrated that everything that goes down must come up.

Alaskans have an expression that what goes around comes around. And on a clear night, you can really feel yourself riding around on top of a tilted planet, holding onto your firelight, your family, and your friends. And if we become brightened by a bit too much home brew, if we tilt and forget some of the words to those carols, our children will sing out the verses we passed along to them, and keep the music going around. And around again.

CURWOOD: Writer Geo Beach arrived in Alaska 15 years ago, on the Winter Solstice. He comes to us from KBBI in Homer, Alaska.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Our production team is: George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Terry Fitzpatrick, Liz Lempert Daniel Grossman and Miriam Landman -- along with Peter Christianson, Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. We had help from Jim Frey, Elsa Heidorn and Rebecca Sladeck-Nowlis, Jodie Kirshner, and David Winickoff. Our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky. Joyce Hackel is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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